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Private Lives

Everyman delivers a viciously funny take on Noël Coward's classic

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Deborah Hazlett (left) and Bruce Nelson are so very rah-ther, indeed, what what?

Private Lives

By Noël Coward

At Everyman Theatre through Dec. 11

Noël Coward was nothing if not stylish. From the dashing, sometimes risqué, often wickedly funny characters in the 50 or so plays he wrote to his debonair public persona, Coward was ever a man with a certain something.

And Everyman’s production of Private Lives, Coward’s 1930s comedy of manners about what one might call a star-crossed divorce, lives up to its writer. Directed by Carl Schurr in his directing debut at Everyman, the production is engaging, funny, gorgeous to look upon, and oozing with style, down to the 1920s art deco posters on the wall and the perfectly marcelled hair of the female characters. After the powerful gravity of A Raisin in the Sun, the production is a welcome bit of devilish fluff (with, nevertheless, some universal truths within, should you choose to look for them). So welcome, in fact, that the run has already been extended for a week.

The play opens as two ex-spouses, Amanda Prynne (Deborah Hazlett) and Elyot Chase (Bruce Randolph Nelson), are accidentally honeymooning with their new significant others at the same hotel in France. Once Amanda and Elyot catch sight of one another, they quickly realize they are still in love—and, not incidentally, still prone to vicious bickering. Pandemonium ensues.

On opening night of the production, Everyman Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi told the crowd with a wink: “If you don’t have it in your sets and costumes, honey, you don’t have Noël Coward.” And, indeed, the first thing one notices about this production is the lovely, intricate set. The first act takes place on the terrace of the hotel, a long white balcony with art deco details over the French doors, through which characters constantly enter and exit, just missing each other in classic comic style. The set change for the second act is astonishingly thorough: Suddenly we are in a lush Parisian flat with plum-colored walls, where Amanda and Elyot have fled together. The walls feature contrasting decorative trim, sconces, art; even the corners of the room that are scarcely visible are flawless, lacking any touch of anachronism and, what is more, creating a sense of place that a mere stock portrayal of a period home would not.

Details like these are not just eye candy. They draw one into the story—oh, to have a living room like that!—and also sometimes serve to emphasize a punch line. Private Lives has a highly symmetrical structure; it is from the comparisons between couples that much of the comedy arises. Amanda and Elyot are worldly, wild, and by turns passionate and cynical. Their respective new spouses, Victor Prynne (Peter Wray) and Sibyl Chase (Erin Lindsey Krom) are well meaning, naive, and dull. Many seemingly incidental details in this production play up these differences. For instance, in one scene, Sibyl, all rosy cheeks and delicate femininity, dresses for dinner in a pink lace confection with rhinestones and flounce. Amanda’s dress is also of the era, but hers is a slinky blue silk with sleeves cut to reveal the upper arms. One is a woman and one is a girl, and the costumes do nearly as much as the characters to get this across.

Inanimate features aside, Nelson is the star of the show. With Sibyl, he seems a patronizing, world-weary, arch sort of person—if bitingly funny; he casually throws out lines like, “I should like to cut off your head with a meat ax”—which makes it all the more surprising when he sees Amanda for the first time and his eyes glisten with tears. When they are moony and happy together, Nelson is buoyant with it, prancing absurdly toward Amanda to dance with her, nuzzling her nose unselfconsciously. And when they are at each other’s throats—which is often—his malice often takes the form of infuriating, callous indifference, as if she were an annoying hangnail. Hazlett does a good turn as Amanda, as well, though on opening night she stumbled through several lines early on, slowing the momentum. By Act 2, she was in fine form, every bit the liberated woman, her “heart jagged with sophistication.” Their chemistry together is electric, especially given the comparison of their bland relationships with their new spouses.

Coward said of Victor and Sybil, the supporting roles, that they were “. . . little better than ninepins, lightly wooden, and only there at all in order to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again.” That’s pretty much it, but both Wray and Krom play their one dimension to the hilt, making you care far more for Elyot and Amanda; they may be damaged, destructive, and doomed, but they’re really so much more interesting (with fights so violent—thrown projectiles, broken records—that one fears for the beautiful set). Kudos too to an often unsung hero, the dialects coach (Gary Logan). All four characters speak with flawless British accents, so subtle one forgets to listen for mistakes.

Private Lives is the sort of production that has the audience rehashing scenes themselves afterward, for laughs. Hide the vinyl.

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